American Indian author and tribal storyteller Joseph Bruchac shares a new tale
of an ancient American people and their progress in the current issue
(September 2004) of National Geographic magazine, one of the most widely read
periodicals in the world.
Abenaki on his mother’s side, raised by his maternal grandparents in the same
Greenfield Center home where he lives today, Bruchac is Saratoga County’s most
prolific author, having written more than 100 books, published by a wide range
of presses, including West End, Fulcrum, Crossing, Dial Books, Harcourt,
HarperCollins, Fulcrum, Scholastic and his family owned Greenfield Review
A gifted teacher who earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature, he had little
awareness of his native roots while growing up, but has spent his adult life
learning and teaching about American Indian traditions and history.
National Geographic editors sought out Bruchac for this documentary-style
magazine feature about Indian renaissance. Large, striking color photographs
published with the article are by Maggie Steber, who is of Cherokee ancestry.
The National Geographic Web site offers additional images, background and sound files, including recordings of Bruchac telling additional Abenaki tales and details of his travels.
Also, a large map supplement to the magazine offers extensive background
information, including a guide to the linguistic families of North America,
details of Indian innovation, graphic representations of ‘Indian country’
through history and portraits or photos of American Indians who are
significant historic figures.
Bruchac provided details and background for all of these.
Founded about 115 years ago, National Geographic has published numerous photos
and accounts of American Indian life, although some of those might be
considered politically incorrect or historically inaccurate today.
Bruchac himself wrote for the October 1991 issue of the magazine in a
commemoration focusing on a Mohawk village not far from Canajoharie in 1491, a
year before Columbus ‘discovered’ America.
The current issue of the magazine coincides with the dedication and opening
later this month of a new National Museum of the American Indian on The
National Mall in Washington, although that subject is barely mentioned in
He said some 14,000 American Indians are expected to walk in a procession for
the opening ceremony.
‘The guest list is enormous,’ he remarked.
Speaking by phone last week, Bruchac said National Geographic had a general
idea of what they wanted for this article when they contacted him. To write
the piece, he started traveling about 16 months ago, making brief trips over a
six-month period to reservations and places of importance to Indian culture.
‘In some cases it was reconnecting with old friends, and in others it was
meeting new people and trying new things,’ he reported on his
experience. ‘Like wild ricing with the Chippewas,’ he said, remarking on an
adventure he had in northern Minnesota, where he harvested grain into a canoe,
using the ancient technique of Chippewas’ ancestors.
Bruchac notes a growing awareness of American Indians over the past 20 years,
perhaps most evidenced by the Congressional Native American Caucus, a
bipartisan group that represents tribal interests on Capitol Hill.
‘A lot of my article is about how American Indians define themselves, though,
and what I wrote gives a glimpse of this being the tip of a very big iceberg,’
Indeed, how American Indians define themselves might be as individual as each
separate tribe’s identity, or as complex as whether a person grew up on a
reservation, or learned the language of his or her ancestors.
‘Growing up, I just thought of myself as a person,’ he explained. ‘It wasn’t
until I was in higher education that I started to see myself differently.
‘In general, people are looking for respect for their background, but also
acceptance as an individual human being, rather than stereotyping a group in
ways that are historically accepted,’ he observed.
The National Congress of American Indians is mounting a national grass-roots
campaign to turn out a million American Indian voters in November, and the
opening of the new museum should give a boost to that effort.
Bruchac used the buffalo as an analogy of the American Indian in his writing
for National Geographic, but said he hadn’t planned that symbolism.
‘It grew out of the experience I had,’ he said. ‘I like to leave myself open
to messages of the world, and the buffalo is a great image,’ he said.
And buffalo herds are growing larger and stronger today in those same places
where they once roamed freely and sustained the ancestors of so many American
It’s a comforting thought for Bruchac, and for most native Americans, be they
American Indian or descendants of other cultures.
Storyteller and writer Joseph Bruchac will speak to students at Gowana Middle
School on Sept. 28 and at Koda Middle School on Sept 29, both in Clifton Park.
©The Saratogian 2004
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